Unravelling the secrets of Australian native bees

Australia has over 1,600 species of native bees. As a young university student in 1979, I was keen to learn all I could about these diverse species. However, I soon found that the original descriptions of many of these bees were in obscure books and journals dating from the late 1700s to the early 1900s, only available in specialised research libraries. Unravelling the secrets of Australian native bees would prove to be a challenge!

When naturalist Joseph Banks arrived in Australia in 1770 with the first British expedition, he found an astounding new world of undescribed species. Amongst the hundreds of specimens that he collected were a blue-banded bee, a resin bee, a carpenter bee and a wasp-mimic bee. Five years later the Danish entomologist Johan Christian Fabricius included descriptions of these four bees in his 1775 tome, Systema entomologiae. These were the first recorded descriptions of Australian native bees. You might say that Systema entomologiae was the first field guide to Australian native bees!

To study Systema entomologiae back in my early career, I had to visit the research library of the Australian Museum. This is rare book so it was gingerly placed on a cushion, and I had to handle it with gloves. Photocopying was forbidden, and I had to laboriously copy down the Latin descriptions using pencil and paper. Now, thanks to BHL, I can view Systema entomologiae on my home computer and have downloaded a copy for detailed study (REF 1).

As the young Australian nation developed, most of the research on our bees was done by scientists from overseas. In 1854, British entomologist, Frederick Smith, described our first stingless bee species, Tetragonula carbonaria (originally in the genus Trigona), from a specimen deposited in the British Museum. He simply recorded the collection locality of this bee as ‘Australia’. Smith’s description can be studied in BHL (REF 2).

Then in 1863, Smith examined a nest that had been brought all the way to England and exhibited to the Entomological Society of London. His description, in the Transactions of that society, now archived by BHL, was possibly the first published account of the nest of this species (REF 3).

In 1898, German entomologist, Heinrich Friese, published descriptions of four more stingless bee species from Australia and New Guinea, including the first Austroplebeia species. His paper in Természetrajzi Füzetek is now available from BHL (REF 4).

In the early 1900s, the American zoologist, Theodore Cockerell, described hundreds of Australian native bee species, including six species of stingless bees. Then finally in the 1930s, Tarlton Rayment, an Australian naturalist, wrote numerous illustrated articles about our native bees. Many of the works of Cockerell and Rayment have also been archived by BHL.

Australia’s Tetragonula and Austroplebeia stingless bee species quickly became my special interest. These charming bees were being kept in logs and hives across the continent, they make delicious tangy honey called Sugarbag, and their value as crop pollinators was being explored. Despite their popularity and economic value, their taxonomy was in urgent need of revision. The number of Australian species was unknown and the existing species descriptions were grossly inadequate. My husband, Les, and I decided to try to identify and describe all of the Australian stingless bee species. Little did we realise that it would take us 36 years to achieve this goal!

Fifteen species names had already been given to our Australian stingless bees by early entomologists. To assess the validity of these names, first we needed to study the type descriptions of these species. Unfortunately, we started this project long before the existence of BHL, and we were obliged to search for these old papers in museum and university libraries – a daunting task. Then began the field work! Les and I set out on expeditions to the most remote parts of Australia and searched for stingless bees in each of the known localities where they had been described.

With the help of Japanese expert, Professor Shôichi Sakagami, we published our revision of the Tetragonula stingless bees in 1997 [REF 5]. The Austroplebeia, however, proved to be far harder to classify. At last, with the help of collaborative studies with the University of Western Sydney, the species groups became clearer. We then performed a three year, in-depth analysis of our entire Austroplebeia collection and published our Austroplebeia stingless bee revision with Dr Claus Rasmussen in 2015 [REF 6].  For a colourful look at our findings, including stories from our outback expeditions, read ‘Meet the Austroplebeia species’, article 25 in Aussie Bee Online on Aussie Bee website [REF 7].

BHL provided valuable assistance with our recent Austroplebeia revision. One of the most challenging tasks was matching the original type specimen of each described species with our recently collected materials. To do this, it was important to find out where each type specimen had been collected. For some type specimens the collection localities were quite vague. For instance, the recorded locality for the A. australis type was ‘Central Australia’, a huge area covering hundreds of square kilometres. So we searched exhaustively for clues in other old texts from the time, such as the 1891 account by Reverend Louis Schulze on Aboriginals of the Finke River area of Central Australia, archived by BHL [REF 8].  We concluded that the A. australis type was probably collected near the Central Australian Aboriginal mission of Hermannsburg.

The anatomical terminology required for the revision paper was another substantial challenge. I had to compile my own specialised glossary of stingless bee anatomical terms so that I could understand the technical descriptions of the early papers and correctly prepare revised descriptions. BHL provided valuable reference material for this task, including William Kirby’s 1826 glossary of anatomical terms [REF 9].

I am an independent self-funded researcher located over 80km from the nearest major research library that holds archival material of this type. Being able to browse, study and download these publications on my own computer in my research centre whenever I needed them, rather than travel long distances to a library, greatly facilitated my work.

In addition to our taxonomic work, Les and I have also created Aussie Bee, Australia’s largest website on native bees. The photographs, videos and articles presented on Aussie Bee showcase Australian native bees and help raise public awareness of these vital pollinators. The stories of early exploration and discovery connected with our Australian native bees help engage and maintain public interest in these species. We thank BHL for the fascinating material that we have found in their archives so far and look forward to exploring BHL’s archives further as we continue to unravel the secrets of Australian native bees.



This post may contain the personal opinions of BHL users or affiliated staff and does not necessarily represent the official Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL) position on these matters.

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Anne Dollin is the Co-founder of the Australian Native Bee Research Centre in North Richmond NSW Australia.